A Review of “The Courage to Teach” by Parker J. Palmer


Welcoming the Person Back to the Process of Education

 

When I first opened the book “The Courage to Teach” by Parker Palmer, I had no idea that the ideas it contained would connect with me so strongly. To begin with, I have never had a problem with facing a classroom – in part because I have never taught as a profession, and in part because I really enjoy public speaking, sharing ideas, and asking questions. Even so, I know what it feels like to lose touch with an audience, to wait in silence while everyone pretends to be occupied with something other than what I’ve just asked, and to wonder if anything I say is actually going to matter in the weeks and months to come. If the author had simply addressed these facts and prepared me to face them with courage, I might have written a nice review and left the book on a shelf somewhere to begin collecting dust.

However, like John Dewey’s “Experience & Education” this book is destined for a different kind of fate in my library. As a piece of art, the book in itself is worthwhile to add to any reading collection. My first reaction of simple admiration for the writing quality quickly gave way to an obsession with using the book as a canvass on which to develop ideas about education that finally had words to describe them. This canvass found its setting in the author’s transcendence of typical academic writing through poetic imagery, heart-rending stories, and emotion-filled overtones. Life and passion ooze from every crack in between the lines and seem to slather a hidden message upon the unsuspecting reader. Caught up in the theoretical message of the writing, it took me until chapter three to notice that I was no longer the same teacher-in-training that had begun reading the book. Or perhaps it only took me that long to realize that until this point in my education, I may have overlooked one of the most important aspects of the process called education: the people.

Education is all about people. Parker J. Palmer could have titled his book “Welcoming the Person back to the Process of Education.” Subjects, teachers, students, classrooms, learning methods, and even the institution of education all fall within the scope of Palmer’s call to return the person to the process. In fact, one could even argue that Palmer suggested replacing the process with a recognition of personhood. Through chapter after chapter, I found something inside my soul coming alive and saying “yes” to this call. In fact, much of what Palmer put into words from the years of his experience gave a voice to ideas that had long lingered on the surface of my mind.

Relative to the subject, I had pursued the academic, or objective, way of knowing that requires a separation between the subjective self and the objective facts of the discipline. Relative to the student, I had learned about some of the infinite possible variations of learning that each one brings to the table, but could not reconcile this fact with the need for efficient teaching methods. Relative to my coworkers, I knew that our challenge would be to find some way of building a relationship between students and a content that was probably as disinteresting to them as it would be to us after our third time teaching it. The world of competition, objectification, systematization, and depersonalization appalled me even as I considered the alternatives presented by Palmer. Teaching, in theory is a beautiful subject. In practice, I learned it could actually be terrifying. The reality of education as presented by Palmer is something I desperately want to escape.

Amidst this fatalistic description, I began to understand the desperate need for courage if teachers were going to actually let themselves be thrown into the middle of the fray. It finally made sense why many had shielded themselves from fully engaging in the world of education. The system had begun to drain the life out of me and I hadn’t even entered it yet!

Those who are not driven to leave themselves out of the picture of education by reason of self-preservation often do so on the basis of necessity. According to Palmer, most teachers are taught to leave themselves behind in order to achieve some elusive grasp of pure and un-subjective fact. Because of an exclusive value for objective ways of knowing that distrusts the subjective nature of personalization, most participants in the world of academics are forced to undergo a “…’self protective’ split of personhood from practice…” (Palmer, p. 18). Inside the sterile walls of the classroom, objective data is explored, analyzed, and hopefully remembered by the ‘information receptacles’ whose grades will determine their self worth and chances of success after graduation.

Most of my experience with college level learning looked like this – except for one general education course with a professor who embodied his subject. When he entered a room, Earth Science showed up with him ready to reveal her secrets to anyone that dared show an interest in learning. For an hour or so, rocks became cool, the water cycle had no equal, and random bits of information about the solar system suddenly carried profound implications for the way I lived my life. What separated my experience with this teacher and class from others was that this teacher was somehow able to  “…join self and subjects and students in the fabric of life” (p.11). This teacher looked the part, he wrote about earth science, he hosted debates about related subjects, and taught his students that they were part of a much greater picture than simply showing up to class every day trying not to get an F on our grade reports.

In earth science, something unique happened that was missing from most of the rest of my college experience. In earth science, inert objects and inert objective ideas came alive. Palmer would have argued that this is because “Science requires an engagement with the world, a live encounter between the knower and the known” (p. 55). This encounter cannot take place in the sterile environment created by objectivism, which “…portrays truth as something we can achieve only by disconnecting ourselves, physically and emotionally, from the thing we want to know” (p.52). On the contrary, knowing requires that a person relate to the subject in a way that is in intensely personal.

I was surprised to see such a strong case against objectivism especially in regard to the sciences. However, the points that Palmer has leveled against it seem to make sense. If his idea that objectivism stems from our fear of otherness is legitimate, then by extension objectivism becomes what Alfred North Whitehead called ‘the bane of higher education’ (p. 53). No matter how well students come to understand the sterile facts in the classroom, they will not be able to apply them in a world that is strongly personal, subjective, and changing. “Reality is a web of communal relationships, and we can know reality only by being in community with it” (p. 97). In fact, this aspect of learning transfer is what caused me to eventually come around to Palmer’s side of the argument. The world and the classroom are often so far removed from each other that the experience of one does not carry over to the experience of the other.

But if I learned anything from chapter three, I would probably not force this issue into two opposite sides. Rather, I would learn to accept the existing paradox between the value of objective truth and the impossibility of knowing within the sterile context it creates. Perhaps, I would even learn how to “Live the contradictions now” so that over time I could “…live along some distant day into the paradox” (p. 89) – another flowery saying that is shrouded in mystery. According to Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet, this is probably one of those questions that I must try to love. “’Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them,’” Palmer quoted (p. 89).

Unlike the paradox of the usefulness and the dangers of objectivism, the next idea that Palmer presented in the book gave voice to a subtle idea that has been growing in my mind for some time. This idea gained momentum last semester when I realized that most of my learning came through interactions with the rest of my classmates through the discussion boards. As an autodidact with a passion for reading, I have traditionally questioned the value of group projects. Instead of simply acquiring knowledge of the subject, my experience with group work was that it distracted from learning the subject and forced the members to learn a completely different (but necessary) skill set.

All that changed when I unknowingly began to embrace the ideas that Parker put into words in chapters four and five. First, I came to understand that the subject itself is a profound mystery. “…[It] continually calls us deeper into its secret…[it] refuses to be reduced to our conclusions about it” (p. 108).  Its truth is so deep that I will never be able to grasp its full significance. Second, I recognized a similar greatness in the ability of community to explore and discover it through the process of community. However, with the help of a learning community, I can begin to see the subject from a variety of angles and learn how to interact with it more effectively. Finally, like nature itself, education is “’…relational, ecological, and interdependent’” (p. 100). It is “…more process than product” (p. 96).

For this reason, Palmer said, “…to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced” (p. 92). “In a community of truth, the connective core of all our relationships is the significant subject itself…” (p. 105). This is what draws the learners together and creates a safe environment of exploration. The learning process is not about the teacher looking like the expert. It is not about the student performing to receive a grade. Instead it can become a communal process of exploring the great, mysterious, and perhaps even ‘sacred’ subject.

The problem arises when one recognizes that personalized processes like this often require an extensive amount of time. Creativity and individuality fight against the ideas of efficiency through homogeneity. Teachers that want to foster communities of learning no longer have the option of dumping vast amounts of disconnected facts into the numbed minds of their ’typical’ students.

To counter this problem, Palmer presented a brilliant idea called “teaching from the microcosm” which is both a tool and a philosophy of teaching that maximizes the potential of a community of truth. Instead of tasking the teacher with the job of presenting as many aspects of the subject as possible, this method attempts to teach students how to function like the expert.

At the heart of this method, the teacher presents “small but critical samples of the data of the field to help students understand how a practitioner in this field generates data, checks and corrects data, thinks about data, uses and applies data, and shares data with others” (p. 124). It puts the learning process back into the hands of students with the teacher as a guide, mentor, and example of this process. It depends on an assumption that truth speaks for itself, or that patterns within the discipline will provide the organization that students need to develop their understanding of the subject.

In my own experience, my exploration of online learning in a college environment and the emerging world of MOOC’s, one of the problems that I foresee in the learning process is a failure to take this aspect of learning into account. Rather than forming communities of truth, it will be quite easy for learners to approach the internet seeking sterile objective principles that they can copy, duplicate, and perhaps be recognized for. Once again, the problem of transferring this skill into every day life returns.

Students need to personalize the information. They need to engage with it, interact with it, and do so within the context of relationships with themselves and with others. “We honor both the discipline and our students by teaching them how to think like historians or biologists or literary critics rather than merely how to lip-sync the conclusions others have reached (p. 126). In this phrase, Palmer outlined the other end of yet another paradox. Students need to know certain things about the subject, but more importantly, they need to know how to be in relationship with that subject.

Their understanding needs to go beyond understanding particularities of concepts to “…the underlying dynamics of any concept” within that discipline (p. 134). Such an understanding allows students to progress from simply knowing the things people in this field know, to being capable of doing the things people in this field do. Perhaps this means they will “…use their knowledge to become creators of new concepts” (p. 134).

When I read this section, I was totally sold on the idea of teaching from the microcosm. Certain aspects of this idea had already captured my attention, but the proposition that it could release the creative potential of students solved one of my biggest problems in educational program design. For me, the ultimate goal of education is to help students to reach a level of engagement with the subject where they begin to interact with it on a level that adds to its depth and breadth. However, I was never certain as to whether this level could be reached without extensive immersion in the subject. Palmer suggested that simply teaching the students how to think like a member of the field is enough to unlock this creativity.

From a literacy standpoint I would tend to concur. Students of a language do not need to know every grammatical rule and exception, much less every vocabulary word in order to begin speaking, reading, and writing a language. All they need are the basic rules which they could probably come to understand from an in depth exploration of even a single news article. Because their minds are not limited by the cultural conditioning of people who speak the language fluently, these students are the ones who come up with the most intriguing and sometimes funny combinations of words and grammar rules. However, as they gain experience using the language, their confidence grows and fluency soon follows.

Thus, the most important part of a student’s relationship with the subject is not the breadth of their knowledge about it, but the depth of their interaction with it. It is all about integrating the person with the subject, not about making sure the subject has been adequately presented. Practically speaking, Palmer said, “…I need to spend less time filling the space with data and my own thoughts and more time opening a space where students can have a conversation with the subject and with each other…” (p.123).

Because of the incredible gap between the implementation of Palmer’s suggestions and the realities of contemporary education, Palmer wrapped up his book by exploring ways that educators can form communities of their own that may begin to impact the system. He suggested spending time listening to understand and simply recognizing the individuality of the teacher rather than trying to fix each other or improve teaching methods. This is to help the teacher find some sense of wholeness within herself to bring to the classroom. For Palmer said, “…only as we are in communion with ourselves an we find community with others” (p. 92). This draws back to the opening idea of the book that “we teach who we are” (p. xi). If I am going to be an effective teacher, I must learn how to embody the spirit of learning and perhaps of my subject. “The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it” (p. 148). I need the help of my colleagues and my students to make this an effective process.

Because the institution of education works so well the way that it is designed, educators who have decided to no longer fit the mold begin a quest of being true to themselves that can be very discouraging. Reconnecting with their inner fire and beginning to live consistently with their identity is rewarding for awhile. But how does one continue this process when it seems that change is slow to follow? “The decision to live an undivided life, made by enough people over a long enough period of time, may eventually have social and political impact,” said Palmer (p. 174). Over time impact may be felt, but Palmer also suggested that change will not come from within the organization itself unless it is motivated by an external social movement.  “The genius of social movements is paradoxical: they abandon the logic of organizations so that they can gather the momentum necessary to alter the logic of organizations,” he says (p. 172).

This last thought has challenged me to consider the process by which I hope to introduce the ideas that I am developing about learning in the context of relationships. My first option is to address the established institution by using existing channels of communication and adjustment to invoke change. The second option, and perhaps the more risky, would be to follow Palmer’s advice and begin to work outside of the structure in order to generate the momentum that induces the structure to change. Either way, Palmer said, “…if I care about teaching, I must care not only for my students and my subject but also for the conditions, inner and outer, that bear on the work teachers do” (p. 189).

My job is not simply to learn how to function within the system that exists, but to discover if there is a way to do make that system better. That is what the courage to teach is all about. It’s not a new approach to the same problem, but a way of redefining the problem by awakening the courage within every individual to take the risk of re-entering the educational experience.

Palmer does not merely offer his readers the courage that they need to once again enter the classroom to face a sea of blank faces with a sterile set of facts. Instead, he offers them the chance to reimagine what education means for themselves, their subjects, their students, their colleagues, and the world of education that they live and work in. His call is impossible but radically simple. “The Courage to Teach” is not just a book. It is a call to come alive, to reignite passion, to take risks, to open spaces of learning, to empower students to be, not just to know, and perhaps even to change the way education is done by simply welcoming the person back to the process of education.

 

 


 

Reference

Dewey, J. (1983). Experience & Education. New York: Touchstone.

Palmer, P., J. (2007). The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

For more inspiration and resources, please visit Parker Palmer’s Website at http://www.couragerenewal.org/

 

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